The Best Basketball Player You’ve Never Heard Of

by Lang Whitaker

I’m going to ask you guys to do something I don’t ask of you very often: I want you to trust me. Because I’m about to tell you all about the best player in the world that most of you know nothing about.

It was nearly a year ago, and I was in Miami for game three through five of the NBA Finals. Miami is one of my favorite cities to visit, for the weather and the scenery and the beaches, but after a week there even I was getting kind of punchy. I knew I’d been there too long when Sekou Smith and I found ourselves using a free night to go see “Nacho Libre,” and we actually thought it was funny.

To fill all the down time, a lot of mingling goes on between all the journalists, and one night I found myself chatting with a bunch of writers from overseas. I bumped into a buddy from Spain, and he pulled me aside and gave me two words: Ricky Rubio.

Ricky Rubio, I was told, was the truth. He was a tall, lanky point guard logging serious minutes for DKV Juventut in Spain’s top-flight ACB league. He could run a team, he could pass, he could rebound, he could score, he could play defense.

And he was 15 years old. Playing each game against guys twice his age.

That night I called SLAM’s then-editor-in-chief Ryan Jones and mentioned the kid’s name, and we agreed to keep an eye on him.

About a month later, after I escaped from Miami, I got an email from one of my hombres in Spain. In the final game of the Under-16 World Championships against Russia, Ricky had led Spain to a win in double-OT, including a Sheed-esque half-court shot to send the game to OT.

Oh, and his numbers for that game? 51 points, 24 rebounds, 12 steals and 7 assists.

Meanwhile, I was furious. Here we’d found the next big thing, and he was going to get his own name out there before we could find him.

Ricky’s name started popping up on the internet from time to time, youtube videos starting appearing and in the General Manager poll, at least one GM picked the 15-year-old Ricky as the best international player in the world not in the NBA.

Back in December I ran into an NBA GM that I know at a bar in Manhattan, and after we chatted for a minute I said, “Hey, do you know about Ricky Rubio?” He smiled and quickly said, “Nope.” (If he really hadn’t known, he would’ve said, Who?)

All this time, I was terrified to mention his name to anyone, particularly my friends at ESPN or SI, because with their unlimited resources they’d be able to go see him play immediately.

What they wouldn’t be able to do, however, was spend time with Ricky. Between his team (DKV Joventut) and Ricky’s parents, everyone was looking out for Ricky by not allowing him to speak to the media or do any photo shoots, which would be a problem if we wanted to get him in SLAM.

So, since back in September, I’ve been quietly pushing behind the scenes to make this story happen. This process included a series of intercontinental phone calls and emails and negotiations, before we finally got the word in January: Ricky’s parents had decided that Ricky was not going to do any photo shoots or interviews until he turned 18.

Well, except for one: SLAM Magazine.

(You guys always put stuff in the comments section about how much fun my job sounds when I’m getting to travel all over the place, and for the most part it is a lot of fun. The part of my job you don’t see is the behind-the-scenes stuff I go through to make things happen. That part is completely not fun. I always compare it to being the guy in the circus who spins the plates, meaning I generally have about five or six things I’m working on simultaneously. And if I don’t keep all the projects going, they’re likely to crash and shatter. Ricky was a plate I had to work on for a long, long while.)

I came back to the SLAM Dome after All-Star in Vegas completely exhausted, but two days later I was on a flight to Barcelona. Got there on a Friday morning and spent all day Friday in my hotel room at my favorite hotel in the world, Hotel Omm, resting and watching the Canal+ Futbol channel on my projection screen TV. (For what it’s worth, I’ve stayed in hotels all over the world, from one-star to five-stars, and for my money it doesn’t get any better than Hotel Omm.)

Saturday morning I got up and ate breakfast and…I waited. The Barcelona-based photographer we’d hired was calling me, asking what time we were going to meet up with Ricky. I didn’t know. My guy who kind of served as a fixer in all of this wasn’t returning my voicemails or text messages, and I started fearing the worst: That we were going to be stood up, that nothing was going to work out. I was trying to figure out in my how I was going to explain to my boss that I’d flown all the way to Barcelona and spent four nights in a hotel for nothing.

Then my phone rang. We were all good.

(Also, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to divulge who I worked with to help us make this story happen, because of several reasons, but let me here give a huge thanks to my people in Barcelona, Madrid and Spain who helped pull this together for us. Wouldn’t have happened without you, and you guys know who you are. Muchos gracias, mi amigos.)

A few hours later, I was walking into the Rubio family’s apartment in El Masnou, a quiet suburb a few minutes north of Barcelona along the coast. The entire family was there: Ricky, his brother Marc, their little sister, their parents; also there was their three-week old puppy, Chucky. Everyone was speaking Catalan, occasionally veering into Spanish. I speak conversational Spanish, enough to figure out what was being said and to communicate with everyone. Ricky’s mom went and made us all coffee, which she served in little espresso cups on a big tray. I felt like the third Rubio brother. We shot a ton of photos and all sat around and talked for a while.

From there we piled into a couple of cars and drove to El Prat, a town on the other side of Barcelona, to see Ricky’s older brother Marc play. El Prat is home to DKV Joventut’s third-division team, and they were playing Muro, a third-division team from the Canary Islands. Ricky was playing with Joventut the next morning, so he stayed behind in El Masnou to rest up.

The third-division game was played in a small gym, almost like a high school gym, which was full of fans. We settled into the bleachers and just before tipoff Joventut head coach Aito — who used to coach Barcelona and is something of a legend in Spain — walked in and sat right in front of me. I was sitting next to Ricky’s Mom, and wearing a baseball cap which immediately tagged me as an American. Aito gave me the once-over a few times. I was battling jetlag and had to grab a Coke at one point, and while I was in the lobby I bumped into Rudy Fernandez, a swingman for Joventut and one of the top prospects in Europe, there to see some of his friends who play for Muro. El Prat hung tough but eventually lost, and the action wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, either, but it was comparable to mid-level U.S. college ball.

Early the next morning, my guys showed up and took me over to Badalona, the suburb of Barcelona where Joventut is based. Joventut plays in the Pavello Olimpic de Badalona, the same arena where Magic, Michael and Larry won the gold back in 1992. On this rain Sunday morning, they were playing against Pamesa Valencia.

There’s a lot more about Ricky the basketball player in the SLAM article, but I will say here that he was better than I expected, and I was already expecting something pretty amazing. He can defend, he can pass, he can run a team, he can rebound. The only thing Ricky didn’t do was score, but he only took four shots in the game I went to — someone told me that when Ricky’s playing with Joventut, he doesn’t really try to score because of “the hierarchy of the team.”

The game tipped off and minutes later Ricky checked in. The lead went back and forth, and Joventut would pull ahead whenver Ricky was in the game, but Joventut eventually lost.

How does Ricky play? Well, he’s 6-4 but plays longer. He’s not a speedster, but he’s fast enough. He made a crazy bounce pass off a dribble that made me gasp. An NBA scout saw Ricky play earlier this season and tabbed him the next Pistol Pete, but I think that’s mostly because of the way he looks, with his shaggy hair and prominent nose. I was really reluctant to come up with a comparison for Ricky, because he’s still so young, but the player he most reminded me of?

Magic Johnson.

Yes, I said it. In a way I hate to say it, but it’s true. I’ve tried to think of any other comparison I could, but it’s Magic.

The best thing I can tell you to do is to watch this video. There’s a lot of Ricky on YouTube now, and these clips show how great he is at everything other than scoring. Ricky’s the one handling the ball most of the time and wearing, of course, number 32.

You’re going to hear a lot more about Ricky in the years to come. He recently signed a four-year extension with Joventut, which will keep him with La Penya (The Club) until he’s 20. Until then they’ll continue to protect him and keep him from getting too big for his britches.

I do know this, and I say this without any hesitation: Ricky could play in the NBA right now. You know how most kids look a little bit awkward when they’re playing basketball, like they don’t quite fit into their body? Well, there’s none of that with Ricky. He’s smooth, he’s confident, he knows when and where to deliver the ball every time down.

I was almost hoping Ricky would be a little disappointing, so I could say that yes, he is good, but he isn’t that good. But as soon as I saw him play, I knew the hardest part of the story would be capturing precisely how good Ricky is. We hear so much about these prospects in Europe that now it’s become almost normal to believe that somebody can play even when nobody’s seen them play. I saw a couple of the top Euro prospects play while I was in Spain, but Ricky was hands down better than any of them. His shooting is his obvious weak point, as his jumper was pretty inconsistent. But he can score (don’t forget that 51 point championship game), and his jumper can be honed over the next four years. What he excels at are the things you can’t teach.

(How about this: A decade from now I’ll gladly put my Ricky ravings up against Chad Ford’s Darko droolings, after both have had a players chance to establish themselves in the NBA, and we’ll see who was closer to the truth. Chad, you in? Let’s podcast this bet!)

Ricky did a lot of little things in the game that, as a basketball geek, blew me away. There was one play where he snagged a loose ball (he leads the ACB in steals, by the way) and took off toward the basket down the left sideline. He had a defender on his tail, so Ricky made a right turn near the free throw line and headed across the court. One of his teammates stepped up to the opposite elbow of the free throw line to provide a pick. Ricky saw the guy step up and instead of just running around the pick, he took two steps away from the pick so that the guy setting the pick was at a more severe position to both him and his defender. When he slashed back and finally got to the pick, the defender was a step slow and at the perfect angle and got flattened. I’m not sure if he was somehow taught how to read developing picks and adjust the angles accordingly, but it was phenomenal.

The thing that finally clinched it for me was when I was talking to someone who knows Ricky well. They told me that they’d once asked Ricky what his favorite NBA move was. LeBron’s fadeaway? D-Wade’s crossover?

Nope. Ricky said his favorite move was the way that Steve Nash, when he’s using a pick on his left-hand side, generally takes one extra dribble with his left hand in order to create more space for himself. Seriously. 16 years old!

About that tag line on this post proclaiming Ricky’s greatness: Is Ricky really better than Greg Oden or Kevin Durant? Good question, and there’s no easy answer because it’s like comparing an apple to an orange to a peach. They’re three completely different players who each have completely different games. Right now the college guys are more developed scoring the ball and have bodies that are more NBA-ready. But Ricky’s getting there. If Ricky was in this summer’s Draft I’d take either Oden or Durant ahead of them. Four years from now when Ricky’s 20? It’s going to be a much harder decision to make.

Right now, Ricky is an incredible basketball player. Assuming he continues to develop at anything resembling the same rate, Ricky Rubio is going to be one of the great ones.

Trust me.